To sheath or not to sheath?

In 1987 the Australian National Maritime Museum acquired a pearling lugger from Broome. The John Louis was built in 1957 and operated for 30 years in the pearling industry in north-western Australia. 

The vessel is a gaff-rigged motor ketch and was built from jarrah and karri timber. Up to the 1970s, pearling was still very dangerous seasonal work that was performed in hard-hat diving suits by mostly Japanese, South-East Asian and Aboriginal people. European Australians rarely competed with these skilled divers until the industry was transformed with the introduction of the ‘hookah’ system in the early 1970s. 

The John Louis was involved in trials of this new system of light breathing apparatus connected to an air supply on the deck. After the trials proved the success of the system, and that it did not require hard-hat diving skills, the vessel’s foredeck was raised to create more cabin space for the new European Australian crews who generally needed more headroom than previous crews. 

The John Louis on Sydney Harbour in 1988


The ANMM fleet staff have been doing some restoration work on the vessel. Work on the foredeck has revealed that the  planked decking lay under a plywood sheathing. The museum is interpreting the John Louis at its last ‘phase’ as a pearling lugger in the 1980s, just prior to its acquisition. Because the original decking underneath is in very good condition the question arose as to whether this sheathing was on the boat then and whether it should be kept or removed. 

The problem is that it has been difficult to work out precisely when the ply was installed. 

One ex-crew member recalls that even after the foredeck was raised in the early 1970s to accommodate the larger Australian divers, there was no plywood covering, at least until 1980 when he finished working on the boat. 

Anyone who may be able to help with information on the John Louis, please do get in touch!

3 thoughts on “To sheath or not to sheath?

  1. Greetings!

    I have inherited a fascinating piece of British and Australian Maritime history. It is the Last Will and Testament, and supporting docs, from Ship Captain James Willcocks, in April 1797.

    I am interested in selling it.

    Interested parties may include: British Museums, Australian Museums and Any entity related to British Convict History or Maritime History or Women’s History in the Australian Colonies (as his ship, the Lady Shore, carried 66 female convicts and there was a Mutiny) or Argentine Museums, as many of the women were taken into homes there, or private collectors of historical documents… A book has recently been published about the murder of said Captain on board. This Will is written as he is to embark on his voyage to Botany Bay. This is a framed mat showcasing the Will and includes various embossments, signatures, death certificates. My family has hung it as “art” in our homes.

    I’m wondering if your organization can assist me in finding an interested buyer (private collector, museum, library) for this wonderful piece.

    I appreciate any help you can give me!

    Thank you, Nicole Bolman
    Sonoma, CA USA

  2. Interesting you have that Nicole, my family is in possession of the Captain’s Log and Cargo Log from the Lady Shore. This is from the journey that had the mutiny of 1797. I wonder if we may be related? We are also interested in selling so that it can be properly appreciated. Please contact me at I’ve pictures of the pages that can be sent for authentication. Thanks, Misty Konopka

  3. Correction, we’ve the Ship’s Log and Cargo Log. My mother just informed me we received this because it was left by the Captain to our ancestor who was the Ship’s Carpenter.

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